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What's Not On The Label

Sabine Schneider
Sabine Schneider

Ethics pertaining to food seems to be a hot issue, so I thought it to be a good idea not just to recommend Felicity Lawrence's book Not on the Label, but to present you with a review. Here it is:

Not on the Label - What really goes into the Food on your Plate, by Felicity Lawrence, published by Penguin

Not often I come across an important book. This is one.

The title Not on the Label could be confusing, though. It suggests that the book is mainly about what's in our food. But it is much more than that. We should read it, because it explains in plain language the complex web of the world's food industry. Everything we never wanted to know and wouldn't have dared to ask anyway.

She shows that clogged roads, obesity, deserted town centres, cruelty to animals, environmental damage and starving smallholders in Africa are all aspects of the same food industry we support and depend on.

It's about diseased chickens, for example, reared under cruel conditions, pumped full of beef waste and antibiotics, slaughtered and plucked in a way that defies justification and then sold to us, wrapped in plastic, as healthy food.

But don't be put off - I assure you that even the most squeamish of readers won't be able to find fault with the sober and calm way Lawrence lets us know what's going on in a chicken factory.

She continues with the suffering of migrant agricultural workers. The author is an award-winning and acclaimed British journalist and she did many of her undercover investigations for this book in Britain. But the food industry is a global affair and no one, not even in the remotest places, escapes its grip on everyday life.

The terrible conditions in which North African migrant farm workers live and work around the salad factories of EU Southern Spain might come as a bit of a shock to us. But this is by no means exceptional and can easily be topped by the Chinese sweatshops where children or prisoners make our cheap clothes.

In the chapter on beans Lawrence elaborates on the nonsense of jetting food around the world. It's done not because it's necessary, but because it makes the food industry more money - food that has clocked up thousands of kilometres in a plane sells for more. Take for example the inanity of flying British chives to Kenya, where, one blade at a time, it is used to hold together a handful of Kenyan string beans, which are then packed in polystyrene, shrink-wrapped and flown back to England. Sound silly? This is how the food industry works, selling the Brits apples from Chile or New Zealand while their apple growers are going out of business. Even the organic movement with SUSTAINABILITY in capital letters written on their flags, is caught up in this, swapping food back and forth around the globe.

Lawrence talks about the demise of the world's farming community, and how food retailers control every aspect of production, demanding more food for less money. Only very few retailers control most of the world's food supply - that alone is a scary fact. But the methods used to intimidate and “consolidate” suppliers are as scary and shocking and nothing short of criminal.

I'd love to quote whole passages of this mind-boggling book. The one on coffee, where the farmer in Uganda receives 14 US cents for a kilo of coffee beans, which, when it reaches the shops in form of instant brew, is worth 7000 percent more than the farmer, who can barely survive on the pittance, got for it. And all that so we can keep up the illusion of having come across a real bargain. The costs of cheap coffee to humanity, third world economies and the environment are huge.

One thing that kept me turning the pages of this food thriller is the way Lawrence has managed to keep her stories alive. She doesn't just quote drab statistics; she reveals the facts that lie hidden in the figures. She's also gone out and worked in the factories, she met real people and let them raise their voices. Enough, they say, this is madness.

Lawrence, however, makes it quite clear that there is method behind the madness and that we DO have the power to make a difference. Strawberries in June are a silly thing, we all know that. It's almost a cliché to say it, but I say it anyway: The food industry wouldn't offer strawberries in June or nine leaves of worthless salad in a huge plastic bag if we didn't buy them. We buy them because we're lazy. But that's another story.

She backs the facts in her book with a solid body of research, all stated in the impressive appendix, notes and references.

Every page of this book supports my belief that cheap food isn't necessarily good food, that it makes no sense to destroy the world's last remnants of wilderness to farm prawns and that globalisation hasn't made the vast majority of the world's people richer or happier.

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